Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Abecedarium for the Elements

squint to glimpse my muse, the gnome
by J J Cohen

For perhaps the fourth time this semester, I'm working at home today: and it's one of those perfect spring afternoons that demonstrates DC at its best. The redbuds are deep in their purple, the dogwoods crimson, the sky a vital blue ... and so I am thinking about elements, weather, transport, and medieval secularity.

Cary Howie and I are finishing up putting together the next issue of postmedieval, a special issue dedicated to New Critical Modes. We posted the ToC and abstracts here at ITM about a year ago. My own piece is called "An Abecedarium for the Elements." It's hard to say why I have been so drawn to this outdated, clunky, and childish form. Chaucer composed a prayerful abecedarian poem, of course, but those that have stuck most with me are more modern and profane examples from children's literature -- especially those that take a deconstructive turn, like Martin and Archambault's Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Dr Suess's On Beyond Zebra, or Chris Van Allsburg's darkly funny The Z Was Zapped. I like that the genre is out of date and juvenile, and that an abecedarium must be instructive but demands play.

Here are the first two entries of my own. They give a glimpse of what I'm attempting -- as well as the joy I take in composing jangly rhymes. I've not quite got the whole thing done (don't tell the contributors, or Eileen or Myra), and that's good: on a day like this I can't think of anything I'd rather work on.

Other than a blog post about it.

A is for aerial, the gods’ domain.
We sense presence at every lift of leaves, each scattering of papers or roofs, in tempests that gather, in the tremble of a transatlantic flight. We might pray when these movements perturb. Yet we also suspect that gusts, drafts and mistrals might be the world’s agency not the breath of gods, that the elements might be artists rather than emissaries.

Olympus, Asgard, the celestial vault almost touched by clay bricks at Babel: gods dwell in lofty mansions because we prefer that they like their element remain unseen. Invisible causation reassures. So long as this world’s motion is guided, at least its tragedies become intended. Gods rule the remote earth from air and render the empyrean mundane. A comfortable home. Theology might insist upon the inhumanity of the divine, yet celestial dwelling places are unfailingly anthropomorphic.

But what if no aerial gods abide?

This abecedarium asks: can we glimpse a world enlivened by a vibrant materiality, an elemental and messy expanse (Bruno Latour calls it a kakosmos) in which humans are one actor among many, hybrid and not always volitional agents at that? Can such a secular point of view (the world considered from within the world) arise as a perspective within the Middle Ages, or could that mundus see itself only as viewed from a distant and perspective-giving caelum? Do the sovereign elements of earth, air, water and flame offer an invitation to a potentially non-anthropocentric worldedness, an atheological mode of thought not necessarily anchored in realms where divine and aerial conflate?

B for the brilliance of cloud, earth and rain
Air is watery, a flow. Whirling above tectonic earth but below swift and sidereal fire, air and water are medial: billowing elements of moderate duration. Yet despite bolts and rumblings, a propensity to glide disdainful above sea and land, a cloud is not so celestial: vapor, lightning, sky and dirt, four elements in turbid and volatile suspension. A figure for the life of each. Clud is the Old English word for a mass of earth or rock, a clot. Though we consider earth dull, stone is a heaving, rising, and metamorphic element that inhabits a duration so slow humans miss its undulations. To glimpse the world in its proper temporality is to see earth as cloud: restless matter, a maestro of shapes to burgeon, glimmer, and having brushed heaven fall to rise again. Cloud is a coruscation or churn of dusty water; cumuli that nuzzle the ground as fog; fire that flashes when the world is wettest; all the elements in one, an Empedoclean or Boethian tumult of love with strife.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

This is so COOL! I can't wait to read the rest. I'm really excited about this issue as a whole.